Having been away from home for almost two and a half years, I've been missing some of the things that I took for granted back in Malaysia, one being cha siu bao (叉燒包) or Hong Kong-style steamed buns with Cantonese barbequed pork filling.
In Chinese Cantonese and Mandarin, a filled steamed bun is called "bao." They can easily be found in any Chinese restaurants that serve Hong Kong-style dimsum (港式點心). Now, why I said it's Hong Kong-style? That's because after mingling with some Chinese from mainland China, I realized that 點心 means sweet pastries to them. Haha! So, you see though we're all Chinese, there're still some slight cultural differences among us ... when you compare the Northerners to the Southerners especially!
I believe the last time I had cha siu bao was in late 2006 before I left home. My fifth aunt would get us some cha siu bao from a famous dimsum restaurant nearby her house in Kepong (somewhere in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.) Both my younger brothers love them especially because they were the ones who would wipe these buns off!
Lately, I felt motivated to venture into making homemade cha siu (Cantonese barbequed pork) and Chinese steamed buns. I think this sudden urge rose due to my craving for these buns, my discovery of a pack of pork in the freezer, and the fact that I'd been wanting to try my hands on steaming buns. And better yet, my recent discovery of a GREAT bao recipe on MH's blog! It seemed that the stars were aligned for some bao making!
Aside from my terrible pleating skills, I realized that making good baos isn't that difficult. (Learn more about pleating here .) Other than having a good recipe, some understanding of the ingredients' functions definitely helps. I'd heard from some mainland Chinese telling me that, "弄饅頭需要什么配方啊!!" ("Making mantou doesn't need recipes!!") But at the same time when you're so particular about the result, I do think a formula is necessary! I just hate when some people complain about the food, and yet, refuse to understand the ingredients and follow a recipe precisely. After all, it's all about science!
The recipe from MH's blog yields soft and fluffy steamed buns. They're mainly leavened by baking powder even though a small quantity of yeast is called for. I do believe the yeast is there to provide texture and taste. In fact, we have to make a 12-hour starter dough for this recipe. It's sort of like a shortcut version of the laomian (老麵) method, which is an equivalent to Western sourdough starter--minus the sourness.
I believe that it's the laomian that keeps the buns moist and soft for a fairly long period of time. Actually, I proved the laomian for about 14-1/2 hours because I slept in that morning LOL! Luckily, it didn't turn sour. But as I proceeded with the remaining steps, I found myself having to add more water and some oil to the dough as it was fairly dry. Could this be due to the type of flour that I used and the weather? Very likely ...
Normally, a special type of flour called Hong Kong bao flour is used to make steamed buns. It's bleached and very low in gluten; hence, the white-colored baos seen at restaurants. Mine became yellowish because I substituted bao flour with mostly cake flour--the closest alternative that I could find. Nonetheless, what I was after was the buns' texture. And, I got it!
I read from Jodeli's forum that low-gluten flours make way for baos to smile during steaming. So, forget about those recipes that call for bread or all-purpose flour if you're looking for smiling baos. In the meantime, baking ammonia is traditionally used for making baos served at dimsum restaurants. Though I haven't experienced it myself, I heard that it stinks real bad! No wonder it's called 臭粉 in Chinese, which literally means "stinky powder!"
With the bad things I've heard about and the fact that I don't have it, I decided to use baking soda in place of baking ammonium. Why? This is something I learned when I made my first apom balik, a.k.a. min jiang kuih. I reasoned that baking ammonia becomes alkaline when dissolved in water; therefore, its role as a leavener will only happen in the presence of an acid. In the recipe below it calls for 1/2 tsp of vinegar. Ah-ha! All these started to make sense to me. (Well, baking soda and powder aren't good for us, too, I know ...)
With all the modifications, the baos still smiled at me like nobody's business LOL! I was so happy except I do think the smiling baos somewhat look like fatt koh (Chinese sweet steamed rice cake!) As for the cha siu filling, I sort of did it by referring to recipes and methods from several sources. So, it was mostly eyeballing. I'll document it better the next time I make cha siu again. Anyhow, I better stop rambling and make way for the recipe!
Hong Kong-Style Steamed Buns (adapted from MH's)
Makes thirty 30g buns
110g warm water, at 43C/110F
1/8 tsp active dry yeast
185g Hong Kong bao flour (I used cake flour)
1/2 tsp double-acting baking powder
375g Hong Kong bao flour (I used cake flour)
*the baos were sweet, adjust the quantity if you'd like them less sweet ... but not too much!)
20g double-acting baking powder
5g baking ammonia *I used baking soda of the same amount
1/2 tsp vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar)
- Dissolve together (A) and let sit aside till mixture turns frothy
- Combine together (B), then mix in yeast mixture to combine; leave to prove for 12 hours in a covered container under room temperature *I proved mine for about 14-1/2 hours and it was alright.
*Alternatively, mix all the ingredients for the starter dough together if you're using instant yeast
- After 12 hours of proving, the starter dough should feel soft and moist. Mix in (C) to the starter dough to combine well; continue to knead till you get a not-quite-sticky dough ball
- Divide the dough by 30g and shape each into a ball
*I divided mine by 40g as recommended by MH. Worked for me anyway
- Roll each smaller ball of dough out with the center slightly thicker than the edges
- Place some filling in the center of each circle of dough, then pleat and seal to enclose the buns
- Steam the filled buns immediately over high heat above rolling-boiling water for about 10-12 minutes
*Be fast; otherwise, the baking powder will lose its potency
- Serve baos hot or warm